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News: New heavy weather guidelines issued by USCG for ships transiting the Aleutian Islands

23 December 2019

The Aleutian Islands are a small chain of islands stretching across the southern perimeter of the Bering Sea, separating it from the North Pacific Ocean. In total, the Aleutians consist of 69 islands of varying sizes, the larger of which form an arc of active and dormant volcanoes sitting on top of the northernmost point of the 'Pacific Ring of Fire'.

The geology and climate of the Aleutian Islands is also characterised by localised low pressure systems occurring during winters in the Northern Hemisphere. The so-called 'Aleutian Low' heavily influences the path and strength of cyclones forming in the North Pacific, which veer northward across the Pacific before getting caught in the Aleutian Islands. The Aleutian Low then slows these cyclones down, causing them to become stronger and more intense, creating severe weather conditions for ships operating in the area.

Ships operating within the Aleutian Islands should be wary of the risks associated with these storms. In 1997 the MV Kuroshima broke from its anchorage at Unalaska Island. Severe winds caused the ship to blow into a nearby rock while she was attempting to move to safer anchorage. The ship subsequently ran aground. Two crewmembers lost their lives, and there was a major oil spill as a result. More recently, in 2004 the MV Selendang Ayu suffered an engine failure while passing through the Aleutian Islands. Severe winds caused the ship to drift and eventually break in two.

The Captain of the Port ('COTP') for Western Alaska has now developed operating procedures for ships in port or at anchor in the region. These procedures automatically take effect whenever severe weather occurs, or is forecasted to occur within 48 hours. For the purposes of the procedures, severe weather is defined as

sustained winds that exceed 45 knots, wind gusts that exceed 60 knots, or a 'winter storm warning' by the National Weather Service for any part of the Aleutian or Pribilof Islands.

If a ship operating in the Aleutian or Pribilof Islands becomes aware that they have dragged anchor during severe weather, they should follow the COTP procedures, as attached. The procedures state that deep-draft ships dragging anchor during severe weather in the Aleutian or Pribilof Islands should notify USCG as soon as practicable as it may constitute a hazardous  condition. A deep-draft ship that intends to come within 3 nautical miles of the Aleutian or Pribilof Islands and anchor to avoid severe weather shall also notify USCG as soon as practicable. Members should be aware that failing to notify the USCG of a hazardous condition could result in civil penalties on the ship owner and could prevent the owner from limiting its liability under OPA 90 if an oil spill results.